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NATIONAL CLASSIC BASEBALL TOURNAMENT – Gahr navigates through speed bumps to earn first round win in prestigious tournament

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

CYPRESS-For at least one night, Gahr High baseball head coach Gerardo Perez was glad that his team did not have a speed bump. The 4-10 record the Gladiators brought into the 32nd National Classic Baseball Tournament this past Monday is a bit misleading, considering six losses have been by one run, four of which were against CIF-Southern Section Division 1 teams.

Gahr has blown leads in half of its losses with the game-winning runs coming in the sixth inning twice and in the seventh inning another two times. Perez has had to play musical chairs with his players because of injuries but he and his team felt relieved when the Gladiators knocked off Las Vegas-based Desert Oasis High 5-3 at Cypress High. The Diamondbacks are one of Nevada’s top programs, winning the 2019 4A state championship.

“When we have everybody healthy and everybody in the right place, I think we can handle speed bumps a little bit better along the way,” said Perez. “We have pitchers starting for the first time, or the second time all year. We have guys closing for the first time all year.”

Starting on the mound was junior pitcher Jaden Alba, who got roughed up by Dana Hills High on Mar. 26. Behind the plate for the second time this season was sophomore Chris Johnson and senior Steven Thompson Jr. was closing his first game of the season. But one of the biggest changes was junior Kyle Panganiban who was starting for senior Ethan Kang in center. Kang, who according to Perez is the best center fielder in the area and is recovering from a heel injury he had last Saturday. Kang is expected to be ready next week when San Gabriel Valley League action begins.

“It’s a good team win; we all pulled on the same end of the rope,” said Perez. “I think we had some dominant pitching, to be honest with you, and that’s a pretty good Desert Oasis team.”

After stranding the bases loaded in the top of the first inning, Gahr struck first in the next inning when junior second baseman Alahni Salcedo singled to right and scored on a bases-loaded groundout from Panganiban. The Diamondbacks tied the game in the bottom of the third when Alba hit Robin Vergara on the first pitch and scored on a groundout from Gavin Mansell.

But Gahr would get the inning it needed in the fourth when Johnson reached on a fielder’s choice and moved to third on a double down the left field line from senior left fielder Alex Hernandez. Two pitches later, Panganiban went opposite and laced a triple down the right field line to make it 3-1. He would score when junior shortstop Angel Cortez singled.

The final run for the Gladiators came in the seventh when senior pinch runner Jacob Mendez scored on a groundout from Hernandez. Gahr had nine hits with Salcedo going three for three and Panganiban two for three with three runs batted in.

“There’s something to be said about [Kyle],” said Perez. “He’s very humble, he goes about his business, he works real hard, he’s a great teammate and he checks a lot of boxes. I’m really glad that people who do things right, in a humble fashion, get a little payback. He’s clearly one of our better players because he can play anywhere on the field, and he can hit one through nine in the order.”

Meanwhile, Alba was rock solid during his time on the mound. He worked into the fourth inning and left with two outs in the frame, allowing only three runners to reach base. He hit Jet Gilliam with two outs in the first and Vergara in the third before Jake Cook reached on an error. Alba, who had a 1-1 count on Tyler Stott, was replaced by Thompson Jr. who struck out the batter as well as Joel Castro to end the inning. At one point, Alba and Thompson Jr. had retired 10 in a row.

“I think he was absolutely as good as…he was able to dominate a game with his fastball command,” said Perez. “I’m not getting caught up on the strikeouts because he was really efficient.”

Perez added that he wanted to error on the side of caution after the last pitch Alba threw, who told the longtime Gahr coach he ‘kind of felt something’. Thompson Jr. had been starting for senior pitcher Cristen Banda, who has pitched less than three innings all season.

The Gladiators would drop a 3-2 decision to El Dorado High this past Tuesday and was outmatched by St. John Bosco High 14-3 this past Wednesday. Gahr would face the loser of the South Hills High/San Dimas High game on Apr. 7 to wrap up the tournament, then jump into San Gabriel Valley League play on Monday against Downey High. The two teams will meet again on Wednesday at Downey.

“With our schedule, which is really the toughest schedule, probably, in our division by far; with the number of injuries, and I don’t make any excuses, but for us to withstand what we’ve gone through, I give our guys credit for still being a team, for still hanging in there and for still being positive,” said Perez.